Shelf of liquor bottles

A new documentary opening in the Bay Area this week profiles Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Since its creation in 1935, A.A. has helped scores of people around the world achieve sobriety. We’ll look at Wilson’s legacy and examine the A.A. approach.

‘Bill W.’ and the Birth of Alcoholics Anonymous 31 July,2012forum

Dan Carracino, co-producer and director, "Bill W."
Peter, 28-year member of Alcoholics Anonymous
Martin Nicolaus, founder, LifeRing, and author of three books on alternative recovery from addiction
Keith Humphreys, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford School of Medicine, research scientist at the VA medical center in Palo Alto, and a former senior policy adviser at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy

  • Tgr

    Can you ask your guests to explain in lay terms how AA actually works? Is it based on any theories or assumptions about people? About addiction? I’d like to hear more details about why it is effective.


    • Maria Elena

      The text of AA explains how it works. The book (Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book, 4th Edition) is available at any AA meeting or on You can also find out how it works by attending meetings. Just search for AA in your area.

  • Marie

    Would you ask your guests How do people get into A.A.? Do they get dragged in by family or friends? Do they meet someone who is going? How does someone get referred or encouraged to attend if they are struggling with addiction and what frame of mind do they need to be in in order to be receptive to A.A. principals?


    • Scott

      Marie all of the above including courts requiring you to attend. No referal is needed and all people in all frames of mind are welcome. Check for a meeting in your area. You dont need to be an addict to attend just look for a meeting that is listed as O for open to all. Usually people go on their own because they enjoy being in a room with people like them and understand them.

    • Maria Elena

      There are many ways people get into AA. Some are court ordered because of DUI’s or other alcohol-related offenses. Some are encouraged to go by concerned family and/or co-workers. Some just call the hotline number and ask how to find a meeting.

    • SL111

      If someone comes to a meeting, they can receive help. If you are dealing with someone else who is an addict, at Al-Anon meetings you can get help for all of these questions.

    • Anna

      Hi Marie – One of the nice things about AA is that there are meetings several times a day all over the place. So one can find meetings and people that they are comfortable with. And you are a member of AA “when you say you are a member” … so no one can make someone go to AA – and everyone there has been through it – often the exact same thing. As to frame of mind – some people are simply not receptive. Maybe they have not gotten to the point where they either want to quit, or know they have to to survive – that’s where people say they have not “hit bottom” yet. But it’s always worth a try – and sometimes a key person will be at a meeting that connects with the person having trouble. And there are other programs that work – don’t give up!

      • Rhubarb Koznowski

        so no one can make someone go to AA ” Really? Maybe it’s a choice between jail and meetings, but I doubt it. However, I do agree with your remarks about the social networking value and other programs to investigate. Don’t give up! is the best advice in this column.

        • Anon

          It is quite true. Nobody can force anybody to attend AA meetings and most definitely “join” AA. AA’s own 12 traditions and 12 concepts specifically condemn this.

  • Donaldzimmerman

    Thank you for raising awareness of this always timely discussion.

  • I didn’t get to hear every word of the program as I had to go in and out, but I didn’t hear the name of Carl G. Jung who was pivotal in the formation of AA by providing Bill W with confirmation  of his spiritual “white light” experience as a psychologically valid experience and in providing the psychological context for accepting that religion and spirituality are valid inner forces of the psyche that are not necessarily tied to any one religion or dogma of beliefs. Bill W learnd from Carl Jung that the psyche is to be trusted which confirmed that the “higher power” did not need to have any particular description or any particular name that is given by any religion.  Also Carl Jung confirmed the issue of powerlessness in the face of our conscious response to unconscious powers being the gateway to reconnecting to the greater power of the psyche.

    • SL111

      This approach is so much more powerful than trying to jail the part of the self that is addicted.  A wholeness evolves that has nothing to do with keeping the parts of the self separate.  Thank you so much for this information on Jung and Bill W. 

      • Yes, I had the very same reaction to the “empowerment” by separating  the self into opposites of good self and bad self and putting the bad self into the internal prison. That may work for some people who seem to be able to live with a rigid and fixed view of reality, but it just doesn’t work for those of us who are not at home with dogmatic approaches.

    • Rhubarb Koznowski

      What is frequently not mentioned is that Bill W. was in treatment using a new medical approach- ingestion of Belladonna (also commonly called Deadly Nightshade) which contains the psychotropic agents scopolamine and hyoscyamine. These powerful hallucinogens may explain his “spiritual experience” gazing at the white light. 

      • Anon

        However if you read the later literature he wrote, you’ll see that his by then several more years sober tempered his early tendency towards grandiosity and exagerration as he describes his spiritual awakening quite a bit differently.

  • Wronsutton

    Guest from SU School of Medicine?

  • Paulg

    I just listened to the above program and while it is interesting, I am horrified that the promotion of AA is against one of AA’s basic tenets.  How did this guy get permission to do this documentary and why would KQED support breaking one of the AA’s tenets to air this documentary. I am surprised that no one called in and voiced this objection unless they were screened out.  The media in this country is one of the horrors and I trusted and have supported KQED for years.  Please respond.  As a family member of an alcoholic, I wonder why you did this?

    • SG

      The filmmakers are not actually promoting AA. This is an historical and objective description of one of its founders.

  • Byron

    There was a reply to my call that alternatives to AA are offered by the legal system in the Bay Area. If you examine county behavioral health departments throughout the Bay Area, you will find an almost exclusive entanglement with 12 Step support groups.

    • Courts have very little in the way of organized alternatives. The judges know that if a person is going to AA meetings 3 to 5 times a week that there is a good chance that they will at least think about the consquences of their behavior. AA meetings don’t cost anything and are confidential and are frequent so the judges feel good about that option.  If there was any kind of organized alternative providing the kind of daily meetings and social integration then the courts would consider giving defendants an option. Unfortunately for the option of choice, AA or NA is literally “the only game in town” in many areas.

      • Mlleochose

        AA isn’t “the only game in town”. Though it works nicely for many people, it is, by its own account, an imperfect organization.  Any organization that so humbly admits of its own imperfection would likely be happy that there are other organizations which appeal to those whose needs are not served by it. There are plenty of people  whose desire for sobriety are sincere, but who do better in one of the alternative organizations.These are, in turn, responsible for the lifelong sobriety of many people.The oldest is Women for Sobriety. SMART Recovery is the largest, and LifeRing is growing rapidly around the world.

  • Mlleochose

    Thank-you so much for inviting Marty Nicolaus onto your program! I’ve been sober for 31 years, thanks to AA where I made many hilarious and kind lifelong friends. But, I’m even more appreciative of LifeRing, with its secular approach to recovery. LifeRing is a place where I feel free to ask questions about the recovery process that might not be welcome in AA.

  • MrHappyLiver

    I always find it amazing that people turn to drink. No matter how candy-like they make some of the drinks, it remains a toxic menace and a terrible form of escapism.

  • Anna

    Addiction is the hell that makes consequences no longer matter; even suicide. AA has saved countless lives. SmART is a great program. LifeRing comes highly recommended too – though I do not know it personally. I imagine the court system is working with the best alternative they have. Smart is not really here on the west coast yet. But they are accredited.  

  • Kathy

    As a 25 year person in recovery – the daughter, granddaughter,  sister and sister-in-law of alcoholics, I can’t imagine another way of life.  I have been around people in recovery with with a program and those without.  You can tell the difference.  I want to live. and AA has taught me how to handle life.

  • ae4disq

    Treatment for substance abuse is not a one size fit all.  Alternatives to treatment must be available for individuals seeking help. 
    American Euphoria, a publication, views addiction from a new and different perspective. It is a holistic approach to drug/alcohol use and abuse that will help to question current drug treatment and drug policy authority. It focuses on the divisions between the “recovery culture” and the “drug culture”. Simply put, members of the drug culture have an acceptance of drug use while the recovery culture has an abstinence only approach. They are exclusive subcultures with little communication or acceptance of each other… although the culture of recovery is considerably more politically powerful. When one enters treatment, one must become an active, participating member in the recovery culture or risk becoming a treatment failure. One must drop all ties and interests in the drug culture and become committed only to the culture of recovery. Recovery, from the standpoint of the “culture of recovery” must be one of “higher power” conversion.
    Acknowledging that “addicts” could benefit from some of their drug experiences or part of their drug culture experience is unthinkable from the perspective of orthodox recovery. From the position of rehabilitation, all drug use is bad and any use is unacceptable. The people, places, and things that are associated with the drug culture must be disavowed. They are “triggers” to further drug use. Everything about the drug subculture is anathema from tattoos to clothing styles.  

  • Behind his {Bill W’s] desk stood a file cabinet, containing the
    outlines, “Main Events,” “High Points,” all the constant reminders of his desire
    to get the record straight, and it may have been his consciousness of them that
    prompted his letter to Dr. Carl Jung in Zurich.

    He began by introducing himself and apologized for his long
    overdue expression of gratitude for the critical role Jung had played in the
    founding of AA. He reminded Dr. Jung of Jung’s conversations with Rowland H. in
    1930, and then, in the simplest way, he related what had happened to Rowland
    after he left Zurich: Rowland’s spiritual awakening, his meeting Ebby and
    carrying the message to him, and Ebby’s carrying it to Bill. It was not a long
    letter but he got everything in: the chain reaction and some details of his own
    experience at Towns. And he ended with the statement that Jung’s place in the
    affection and history of AA was like no other.

    Within a week, Bill had a reply from Jung:

    It would be a real shame if the film doesn’t include reference to Carl Jung since Bill himself felt so much about Jung’s “critical” influence.

  • 15YearsCleanAndSober

    AA is the program most often referred to by the courts because its track record has provided better results in examination by the legal system than others. As well, it is important to note that there are NO DUES OR FEES in AA. AA is self-supporting and even then, contributions for the support of AA by its members are completely VOLUNTARY. Though emphasis seems to be more often on the 12 steps of AA, without AA’s 2 other legacies (its 12 concepts and 12 traditions), AA could not and would not exist. Lastly, I might note that AA is not a program of abstinence, as it were; it is a way of life (or as AA calls it in its literature “program of living”) through which an alcoholic may find no need to drink alcohol. While there are alternatives to AA, without AA, those alternatives would likely not exist today as many of them were started by alcoholics with resentments – resentments most of which are thoroughly described in AA’s basic text.

    • Rhubarb Koznowski

      I must take issue with some of your comments. 1st, AA has not produced better results. The AA Grapevine newsletter claims a success rate of about 5% for long term abstinence. The Big Book puts the blame for this solely upon the alcoholic, saying in the chapter “How it works” that a lack of honesty is the primary cause for failure.
      There are a number of treatment modalities that have higher success rates. Many of them do incorporate 12 Step elements; however, some of the more successful ones do not emphasize spirituality or ‘faith healing’ as a recovery tool. 
      Next, we are in complete agreement that AA is a way of life. However, the oft stated “primary purpose” is to stop drinking. 
      3rd, it is true that some programs were started by those dissatisfied with the AA approach to sobriety. It is also true that there are a number of other paths that even Bill W. recognized and admired. He is quoted as saying “we should have no quarrel” with these.
      I believe the greatest weakness for AA is the unwillingness of the program to follow and utilize the advancements that have been made in addiction therapy since 1937. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has a conference on a yearly basis that discusses exciting new ways to help the suffering individual. AA for the most part holds the position that the only thing that works is to find a Higher Power which is called God in many references in the literature. On a personal note, I have 31 years as a member of AA one day at a time. I also utilize programs such as to enhance and maintain my sobriety.  
      Thank you for your contributions to this discussion.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor